Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

I am sometimes asked why “fad diets” seem to fail so often for so many people, and what a simple diet plan would be.

In my opinion, fad diets—especially low-carb or no-carb type diets—usually fail because they involve trying to normalize extremes, specifically extreme restriction of calories and/or carbs. Being hungry or undercarbed (and as a result with poor energy levels and sometimes depressive feelings) can easily lead to falling off of the diet or outright binging. It takes the pleasure out of life to never feel satisfied after eating, and for every food to signify nothing but a certain number of calories. And who wants to live that way?

Pleasure is, believe it or not, just one principle from which to derive satisfaction in life. It is possible to derive satisfaction from other principles. For example, your food choices can be based on the general principle that your weight loss goals are valuable and worth sticking to, and some specific principles that fit within that. High caloric deprivation can cause feelings of fatigue, irritability, lethargy, and depression, especially when the calorie reduction is implemented all at once (to theoretically provide quicker results) instead of as a slow, gradual decrease in your daily caloric intake. Therefore, any principle upon which your diet is based must be strong enough to offset the displeasure that generally accompanies feeling tired, irritable, incapable, and unhappy.

Your thought process must be closer to “I am lean,” rather than “I should be lean.” Saying “I am lean” is an act of self-definition based on a principle whose validity you also define. Whereas “I should be lean” reflects more of a desire to conform to society’s principles, society’s definitions of what you should be. The more you validate societal principles, the more time, thought, energy, and passion you expend on them, the more you devalue yourself. Think about that for a moment.

What I’m getting at is this: the key to changing a behavior such as diet lies partly in understanding why you’re attempting to latch onto such a principle as “I should be lean.” Is it for your health, for your sense of well-being and happiness, your sense of accomplishment and personal growth based on the knowledge that you’re worth the time, effort, and appropriate level of self-absorption necessary to improve?

Or is it because you feel inferior to thinner, more jacked, or more “healthy-looking” people? Is it because you have failed in achieving fitness in the past, or failed in some other area of your life? Or do you feel defined by some other sense of just not being “good enough”?

Going a little further, does it seem like people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, and your desire to get fit is a reaction to that? To appease them and shut them up? It’s a rough world and such things are common. But worrying about being super-skinny to please other people generally doesn’t make most people happy, even if they succeed. Indeed, such folks often feel weak, miserable, and irritable, as I mentioned above, and as though everyone is criticizing them, hence the stereotype of the high-strung temperamental dieter. And a lot of them understandably have body image issues. Wouldn’t you?

Most mass-market fad diets play on people’s emotional insecurities and exploit them. The diets themselves are often designed by “doctors” or “nutrition experts”  (some of whom have no nutritional or even medical training) who are only trying to line their own pockets. Now, before any of you hardcore “free market” advocates come at me and say, “well is there anything wrong with wanting to line your own pockets?!” let me point out that not only have such business practices by “nutrition experts” NOT helped to curb the obesity epidemic in America, but anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders have steadily increased as well. So I say, YES THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

That is not to say that these diets don’t have a place. For instance, if you want to lose fat very very quickly, like for a wedding or upcoming beach trip, dramatically cutting carbs can make a big difference. However, such weight loss is generally not sustainable because living life without carbs is a ridiculous and bad idea, and your body knows it. Think of extremely low-carb diets as a specific tool, like a jigsaw or a pair of bolt cutters. They fulfill one specific need very well and aren’t terribly effective beyond that.

“Specific tools” is pretty much how I feel most diet schemes should be viewed. For instance, the technique of intermittent fasting (which I will discuss in detail in a separate article, along with its often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath counterparts, flexible dieting and 6-small-meals-per-day), is effective for some people at making bodyfat “melt” off. It involves utilizing only a relatively small window of time every day in which you get all of your calories and maintaining a fast throughout the rest of the day.

For some people, intermittent fasting, or IF, is a godsend. It is more of an eating schedule than a diet per se, and as such it provides clear guidelines and boundaries that do a lot to simplify the process of calorie control. And as I am nearly always willing to point out, if it works for you, do it.

But for a lot of people, not eating for long stretches of their waking day is not feasible. Some people work very physical jobs and it is not practical for them to start their work in the morning in a fasted state. Even people who work at desks experience trouble focusing while fasting and turn to caffeine or other stimulants to perk them up for the next 6-8 hours. Many people can’t exercise effectively or muster up the motivation to do so when they’re undernourished.

In general, it is unpleasant to be hungry for long periods of time, and I can imagine (I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but bear with me here) that it leads to cheating for a lot of people, if not outright binging. And this failure will have to be recovered from, as will the next one, and the next one….such is the definition of “yo-yo dieting.”

Continuing with IF for a bit longer, that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the people who have the most success with IF are not new to fitness or dieting. They are already engaged in one or more aspects of a fitness lifestyle, and use IF or other tools for a specific purpose, much like a veteran gym-goer who knows how to deadlift but only chooses to do so for a specific purpose, rather than the novice gym-goer who has no idea how and would probably get hurt if he/she tried. Deadlifting, and IF, are not good places to start.

The trick is, we’re trying to develop discipline. It’s hard to develop it if every time you try, you experience physical pain or discomfort. I get it, we need to break free of our comfort zones, et cetera, and that is 100% true. But let’s briefly think in Darwinian terms: imagine placing a gilled sea creature—the distant precursor of the human being—on the sandy shore and yelling “Evolve! EVOLVE NOW! BREAK FREE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!!!” at it. What’s going to happen? It’ll desperately try to get back to the water, and die from lack of oxygen. It took millions of years for those sea creatures to creep up onto the land, and then to breathe air, and then to walk upright. They crept up, and experienced a benefit: safety from much larger sea predators. They learned to breathe air, and another benefit was bestowed: the ability to sleep. Walking upright proved another benefit: reaching for sweet fruits from trees, making fire, and so on.

For successful dieting, it needn’t take millions of years. But it will still take patience, and experiencing particular benefits. You can’t get that from merely dieting. You need holistic health: nutrition AND exercise. That’s all I’m saying.

And now, after that picaresque detour, on to the second part of the question I am often asked: what is is a simple dieting plan that can be adhered to with relative ease?

A simple dieting plan would be to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods in meals, snacks, and desserts, monitoring salt, unhealthy fat, and empty calorie intake, drinking tons of water, and eating enough to match, exceed, or fall short of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) depending on whether your goal is weight maintenance, gain, or loss, respectively, all while utilizing an exercise regimen based on compound movements, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health, consisting less of a certain number of sets and reps (although this is fine and works for a lot of people) and more of a specific amount of medium-heavy to heavy exercise per week and light-medium to medium exercise per day. Whew. Long sentence.

To identify your TDEE, do an internet search for TDEE/BMR calculator. I don’t want to push a specific on you because a lot of these sites are trying to sell you something. So try a few of them and average the results. But take my advice: never go below your BMR. Your body will go into starvation mode, your metabolism will become sluggish, and your weight loss will stagnate if not reverse itself. Let’s do this right, or not at all.

It is important to find exercises that give you a sense of enjoyment, just as it is important to find nutrient-dense foods that you also enjoy and can serve as staples. In order to lose one pound per week, you must reduce caloric intake by 500 calories. And when it comes to reducing caloric intake, think of it this way: you can reduce caloric intake by eating less, or by exercising more. That’s a liberating concept. The more you exercise, the more (healthy, nutrient-dense) food you can eat. You can be full all the time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

And then, eventually, when you have a strong grip on portion sizes, you won’t have to count calories. Ever again. Counting calories is just a tool. Just a tool.

Why not shoot for losing 1/2 of a pound per week, and use those 250 “extra” calories you eat each day to fuel some heavy lifting, or high-intensity interval training? And building that muscle, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, will increase your BMR and you’ll become a “fat-burning machine,” all on your own, without any need for super-restrictive diets or ACTUAL machines!!!

When these two things (diet and exercise) go hand in hand, it is much easier to maintain your diet because you are seeing your health holistically. The foods you eat will affect the quality and enjoyability of your exercise, and vice versa. For example, a lethargy-inducing, nutritionally-deficient burger-and-fries meal will make you feel like crap, diminishing your desire to work out the next day. Knowing this and cultivating foresight and discipline may help you avoid eating in such ways.

The positive benefits of diet and exercise complement each other, and screwing up in one area will result in a hiccup in the other. In other words, your actions and behaviors have effects outside of themselves. This is another reason fad diets often fail: when diets don’t connect in some way to exercise or your life in general, you are simply depriving yourself of something for its own sake; it has no gravity outside of itself. Whereas when exercise and nutrition are related and based on your life—instead of some “fitness guru’s” arbitrary or semi-arbitrary pronouncements about what’s healthy—it is easier to commit and see a greater purpose in it, especially when it relates to improving the overall quality of your life and not just some immediate weight loss goal.

I know this article got pretty deep and philosophical, but I hope it has helped you think critically about fad diets and about dieting in general. There are three main points to come away with.

1) The first step to improving yourself is to know that you’re worth improving.

2) Diet and fitness must be viewed holistically, as part of “the whole you.”

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

How Do I Tell the Good Fitness Information from the Bad?

There are three questions to ask when you’re trying to determine if the fitness writing you’re reading or the product or supplement you’re thinking of buying or the diet you’re thinking of starting will help you at all. Like, AT ALL.

A) Does it relate to my goal?

B) Will it work for me?

C) What kind of promises does it make?

I’ll discuss these questions one at a time, as usual 🙂

Does it relate to my goal?

As I often discuss ad infinitum, if you don’t know precisely what you’re trying to do, it’s impossible to know if the information or product will help you. If you’re trying to burn fat but are not ready or willing to commit to a diet and exercise regimen, coconut oil will not only not help you but it can hold you back. If you want to get “shredded” fast, neither the Perfect Pushup nor the Perfect Pullup is perfect for that goal. And better long-term health won’t necessarily come from liquid diets, high-protein/low-carb diets, single-ingredient diets (like grapefruit or avocado), specific products like coconut oil, kale, or goji berries, or any other type of dieting fad that involves extremes of “eat this, not that.” It definitely won’t come from starvation diets.

This is because these products or fads, some of which may be useful tools, sell themselves as substitutes for a healthy lifestyle. That is, they tell you, “make this one change to your life and you’ll reach your goals!” This promise is a pretty sure sign that the product is not a good starting point. The only value these products have is as effective means of “learning the hard way,” because they so often result in failure and all of the demotivating feelings that come with it.

There is nothing wrong with the hard way as long as you actually learn from it. Besides learning and changing a particular behavior, the other outcome is that you don’t learn from it and you are hard on yourself about it. “Why can’t I just do what the guy in the commercial does and exercise with my new Perfect Pushup three times a day forever? I guess I’m just a weakling deadbeat failure.” The thing is, you can safely assume that the folks who sell these items don’t care if you use it even once after you buy it. They are trying to make money and get ahead in a crowded and competitive field.

The goals that they give you—Lose the Weight And Get Shredded NOW!—may not be the goals you need. Let’s say I’d like to be a genius mathematician. Where do I start? Trying to calculate the tensile strength of a 75-ton iron beam while undergoing the cross-directional friction of 650-ton electronic bullet train generating a drag force of (1/2)*1.2*(160^2)*0.027*42.67 amidst an air density of 1.2 at sea level, and traveling 160 kph, with a 0.027 Drag Coefficient and 420.67m equalling the total approximate underside area of the train?

Hell no! I start at the beginning that suits me. Same goes for “getting shredded!” You definitely don’t start there.

Will it work for me?

The “fitness products” industry wants you to believe there are hard and fast rules for achieving “fitness” and health, such that if a product worked for So-and-so, it’ll work for you too. Two problems with this. A) you don’t know for a fact that it worked for So-and-so. People get paid to say things all the time. And B) Different people react differently to different things. There is no guarantee that the specific strategy that worked for So-and-so will work for you. This is pure marketing.

As I said, these items for sale may be useful tools. The other side of asking, “will it work for me?”is knowing how you will integrate a specific tool into your regimen. “Integrate” is the key word, because this one product will definitely not constitute your regimen. A product that does only one thing, or a diet whose purpose is weight loss and nothing else, is not of itself a recipe for success.

Real, long-term success comes from changes in overall lifestyle that integrate (there’s that word again!) practical principles of health and fitness into your everyday decision-making process. Whereas once you might have eaten to relieve stress, now you manage stress better. Whereas you used to use alcohol consumption to get rid of bad feelings, now its occasional use creates feelings of enjoyment. Whereas energy was a diminishing resource throughout the day, now it is abundant, et cetera.

The principles that produce these types of healthy life changes are not complex. They are essentially universal strategies; they pretty much work for everyone, though to different degrees and in different ways. And there are countless ways to put them into action. This wealth of options is what seems to complicate such simple ideas as the law of thermogenesis: if your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure, you will gain weight (including potentially muscle). If your caloric expenditure exceeds your caloric intake, you will lose weight (including potentially muscle). This is a scientific fact. Your body and its multitude of tissues require calories in order to maintain themselves. If you reduce your caloric intake, you create the conditions for losing unwanted bodyfat.

Now, how and where you lose weight on your body is decided by your genes, and lowering your caloric intake too much can have harmful effects like causing binges, depression, hormonal imbalances, and other non-fun. But “cutting calories” doesn’t only have to mean reducing caloric intake; if you increase your caloric expenditure by increasing exercise, this also has the effect of cutting calories. So doing both, with a decent level of variety in both as well—NOT just one food product, or one type of exercise, or one type of ANYTHING—is the answer.

You see, ideas like this, which are so basic and straightforward and universal, so general and clearcut and unsexy, and place an emphasis on personal responsibility, are not as marketable as, “use this, get that!” The question, therefore, must not be simply “will it work for me?” but “will it work in my overall strategy to improve my health and well-being?” Which leads me to the last of the three questions:

What kind of promises does it make?

It shouldn’t be construed from what I’m saying that integrating helpful principles—no matter how simple they are—into your life and seeing great results is at all easy. It is hard, and it takes time. “Knowing” and “doing” are two different things, after all. Fitness products, however, often want fitness to look easy to achieve: instant gratification, without the work, without the big, disruptive lifestyle changes. You say, “Gimme!” and pay $49.95 for a book or a doorway pullup bar, and within the month, sixpack abs, a skinny waist, a massive chest, and an attractive butt will suddenly say hello to you in the mirror one morning.

The product may promise things like, “See Insane Results in Just Four Weeks!” or “The One, The Secret, The Answer, to All of Your Diet Prayers!” But the truth is simple, and it hurts: the only promises any fitness product can truly make are the promises you make to yourself. “I promise to go from little or no regular exercise to using this piece of equipment exclusively, daily and sometimes more than once per day, and/or going from eating whatever I feel like to, instead, sticking to this restrictive diet every day, all day, for the next indefinite period, and I’ll get jacked.”

If you actually did that, you would probably NOT get jacked, but you’d likely see some results. But almost no one does either. That’s not the product failing; that’s the marketing succeeding, in tandem with a widespread lack of knowledge surrounding fitness and nutrition.

Therefore, your best bet is ignoring the product’s promises and assessing your own level of motivation and readiness to get healthier. Each product must be seen, not as a be-all, end-all, but rather as a tool that is worth adding to your collection of fitness resources. You must ask yourself, “do I know how to get the most out of this product? Is it worth spending my hard-earned money on to expand my fitness options? Or build my ability to work out at home when I can’t get to the gym? Or to work out when traveling and no gym is available? What specific area of my health will this product help me with?”

Of course, this implies that you are concerned with more than one “area”: abs, chest, butt, et cetera. You want an overall feeling of health, a holistic experience of being able to access your physical self at will, a better sense of strength and robustness and better feelings in the mirror. Such a goal is not a destination; it is a process, one with ups and downs, one that requires work and resolve, but that needn’t be torturous or mired in harsh black/white perceptions of “success” or “failure.”

It is a journey that you will choose to take when you are ready, when you feel informed and motivated and empowered, and when the pile of books and workout gear starts to bug you. The only fitness product that truly works is the one that you already own: your body. Believe in it, give it a chance to succeed, learn from its mistakes, and it will get you far. Don’t make promises; make progress.

The Three Criteria of Whether Something is “Good For You”

Instant gratification is a powerful expectation. Once we become accustomed to it, it can define the value of something, just by giving us that initial, endorphin-filled feeling of “now I have it!”

When it comes to fitness and nutrition, though, this “instinct” can hold us back. There are no quick fixes to becoming healthy, losing weight, or gaining muscle.

Every week, another product appears on the market whose claims of being “what you need” to reach your goals sweeps the nutrition field: apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, kale, açaĂ­, goji berries, garcinia cambogia, white grapefruit, paleo and other low-carb diets, et cetera.

But none of these products or routes is “THE” answer. The actual answer is not to make one or two or three changes while keeping everything else the same. It is, instead, to transition into a healthy lifestyle wherein your health and longevity play a key role in your decision-making. The questions of “is this [food or activity] healthy?” and “will this [food or activity] positively contribute to my health and fitness goals?” should constitute a significant portion of your daily conscious thinking, and active measures to accomplish these ends should constitute a significant part of your daily conscious action.

This is, of course, dependent on having fitness goals. So you must be empowered to think knowledgeably in order to set them, and to act confidently on that knowledge in order to meet them.

This transition is easier for some people than it is for other people. It has a lot to do with your current level of health, your day-to-day schedule, your mentalities, your upbringing, and your relationship (or lack thereof) with physical exercise. Just changing from little or no conscious thought about fitness to some conscious thought about it is a challenge for many people, never mind reaching the point where it is regularly considered and acted upon on a daily basis.

Part of the reason for this is the perceived “learning curve.” All of our lives, we are told to become educated in our field of study and profession in order to get ahead in those fields. But rarely are we told to, “educate yourself on maintaining good cardiorespiratory health!” “Learn about retaining insulin sensitivity!” “Develop a firm grasp on how antioxidants CAN EXTEND YOUR LIFE AND FIGHT DISEASE!”

Gym class is of little help. Now, I’m not trying to blame Phys Ed. teachers here, but gym class should be about more than either learning how to play floor hockey, or learning how to get out of playing floor hockey. It should be about learning why floor hockey or any other physical activity is important to your life, and if you don’t like floor hockey, here’s a bazillion other options to choose from.

Similarly, we aren’t told much about the value of nutrient-dense food over nutrient-deficient food, at least not before college. The roles of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber are barely understood by the general populace. Rarely do we hear about the law of thermogenics in relation to health: “if calorie intake exceeds calorie expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” How many times did you hear about how awful heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are, without being told how to prevent them besides “eat your vegetables”?

Like I said, different people learned about these subjects differently, so maybe you learned about them just fine, and maybe you are doing just fine with your fitness level right now (I hope). But many people’s understanding of them is deficient; even if they are excellent at building a house, balancing a budget, writing a novel, or raising a child, staying and feeling healthy is something they just can’t seem to nail down.

There are so many voices in the media and everywhere telling us to do a million different things in order to “get fit.” Healthy, “fit” people seem to have mastered these million things, while everyone else is still struggling. Those who were brought up to have a positive relationship to physical exercise have an advantage, and everyone else has a disadvantage. In neither case, of being “born into” healthy habits or overcoming unhealthy ones and embracing a healthy lifestyle, does it occur overnight. And keep in mind, you can’t always tell how healthy a person is by looking at them.

The “secret” that many successfully healthy people have learned is what I am right about to share with you. The three criteria for knowing whether something—a food or an activity—is good for you, are the following:

1. Does it fall within my health restrictions, if any, caused by a medical condition such as lactose-intolerance, Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, or high cholesterol? If so, do not eat it.

2. Is it aligned with my sense of ethics? You should not eat anything that you don’t approve of, ethically. Avoiding moral compromises helps to reinforce feelings of self-control, discipline, and long-term thinking, and produce an “eating to live” mentality, rather than a “living to eat” mentality.

3. Does it fit my fitness goals? If you want to run marathons, you will need carbohydrates in your diet. If you want that “dry, shredded look,” carbs are a no-no. The health value of any food is almost completely dependent on what you are trying to achieve. Of course, reaching your daily intake goal for fats could be achieved by eating bacon, or by eating avocado, and I would be hard-pressed not to say that one is healthier than the other, especially if one of your fitness goals is longevity.

Another simple criterion you could consider in deciding if a food is good for you is its nutritional content. If it is rich in nutrients, it is good for you. If it isn’t, or if it is also rich in bad things like saturated fat, cholesterol, or added sugar, it is bad for you or should at least be eaten in moderation.

The majority of your foods should be nutrient-dense, whole food (unprocessed or minimally processed) options that leave as little question of their nutritional value as possible. Nutrient-dense whole foods have many benefits: they keep us feeling full longer due to higher fiber content. They give us more sustained energy because they are more vitamin-rich and their carbohydrates are broken down more slowly. Due to that increased energy, they complement our exercise routines. And, they contain more water to help us stay hydrated and reduce water retention (“water weight”).

The trick to remember, no matter how “healthy” all of your foods are, is that law of thermodynamics: “if caloric intake exceeds caloric expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” So if you did nothing but “eat your vegetables” for 3000 calories a day, there’s a good chance you’d gain weight.

That’s because there is no “quick fix,” whereby “you do this and ONLY this, and all of your health worries will be solved.” No. The marketing value of such products is that, once you’ve implemented them, they free you from the burden of having to think about health and fitness, or change anything else about your life.

The truth is, health and fitness require sustained informed thought and decisionmaking, and conscious choice. In other words, it requires some thinking and some time out of your life to really make it happen. But isn’t your health worth it? Wouldn’t it feel good to know that your decisions are based on achieving a larger purpose, and the stress of “not knowing what you’re doing” can be replaced with the empowered feeling of being a nutritional badass?

Now, another question is, do these criteria reduce food and exercise to mere instruments for larger goals, alienating them from their individual pleasurable attributes? Do they demystify flavor and apply a utilitarian purpose to every macro- and micronutrient? Do they encourage every food-related decision to be considered and thought about and monitored, and thereby remove the joy of eating?

I would say no, they don’t. What they do is repurpose food to suit a greater purpose than the hunger or flavor of the moment. Hunger and flavor are indeed important, and needn’t be left behind. But the stress and destructive cycles that mindless, uninformed, or confused consumption can cause should indeed be left behind immediately. There is a very clear pleasure and reward to eating and living with your health being an end result. It is its own reward.

Plus: kale, watercress, avocado, pistachios, chickpeas, arugula, pineapple, kiwi, black beans, oatmeal with ground flaxseed and agave, baked sweet potato, and a million other things are delicious! But, like floor hockey, health is an acquired taste. All it takes is learning how to skate in a straight line, and you’re 100% closer to success than you were before.